Willow Star

One tree that really thrives in our temperate wet climate is willow (Genus: Salix). There are 400 varieties worldwide. The narrow leaved osier types that thrive in the damp corners of our garden provide good windbreaks and grow in the heaviest of clay soils. They provide nectar in early spring for butterflies & moths and are beloved of the needle billed tit family who thrive on the insect life sequestered there. Willows are the first trees to break into leaf in Spring and the last to fall in Autumn. Luckily none of our plants are near to drains where their tough aggressive roots can cause real problems, cracking pipes or blocking flows. An earlier ‘Country Diary’ entry recorded our coming back from North Devon with cuttings from red and green willows planted in marshland at the foot of friends’ commercial apple orchard. The quickness of these slender sinuous trees is remarkable and their utility to man down the millennia unquestioned. The supple strength and flexibility of withies (rod like cut whips) are perfect for making all manner of containers, from every kind of basket to fish traps coracles and coffins. Living sculptures – domes, tunnels etc – are playful features in many public gardens. Its healing properties too – the active ingredient of Salicyclic Acid in the bark – are well known. (The synthesised form being Aspirin). The wood has also been used commercially for the best quality artists charcoal.

The village post office, newsagent and shop is at the heart of our local community and greatly valued. The son of the owners is keen to make it more relevant by promoting regionally produced products and by being more creative with the two window frontages. Our friend Amanda at Southridge farm got involved in this plan and recruited Kim to help, who in turn got me to join them. We cut and stripped our red and green shrubs, now well established between pond and field boundary, to use as wicker work, fashioning from small bundles a whole batch of stars, in all sizes. Sara and the grandchildren on a weekend visit joined in too so our workshop production rate soared! Great fun and very satisfying, quietly putting the pentagrams together; securing, binding and trimming. A & K and another friend Margaret worked out a design to fill the window in situ and hung it with wires. The largest star was highlighted with LEDs for effect, set in a firmament of tiny stars footed by evergreen holly and firs.

Pip

When I first came here to the corner house back in 2010 I was greeted with the sight of a petite black and white cat carrying a dead vole in its mouth, tip toeing rapidly towards me along a slow curve of dry stone wall. Already some eight years old by then Pip had come originally as a kitten from North Farm, arriving half feral and stand alone fearsome. An astonishing runner up of trees and lethal predator of birds and all manner of small furry mammals. A winning combination of slim good looks, set in handsome black and white Geordie strip, this feline was a natural born killer who worked her passage as a skilled pest control operator. As late as this summer our mature ill cat was catching baby rabbits and decapitating them. We never found the heads but their bodies would be deposited in corners about the house, to be detected in due course as much by smell as by sight.

Stephen & Pip taking a nap, 2017

On this day last week, Pip died. Diagnosed with cancer a few months back, we watched with concern the tumour on her right side growing ominously. The decline was gradual yet the miaow remained as strong and urgent as ever with an appetite that showed no sign of abating until just a couple of days before departure. We found her in the morning, stretched out & still warm where we’d left her the night before, on the rug in front of the wood burner. We buried our old friend in her natural garden habitat, at the foot of the curving bank below an old oak post, wrapped in her carry box blanket with a farewell note from Kim slipped in. Pip’s spirit will be quite at home here. We’re resigned to sensing a passing night shadow; finding her curled up in the strawberry beds in the heat of summer; leaping off the porch bench of a chill morning wanting to be let in; gamefully enduring an infant’s attempt at stroking or padding up to greet visitors with her affectionate easy nature. It was that quality that allowed our youngest grandchildren, Emily & Lois, when visiting as toddlers to overcome their fear of felines. Here’s a picture that captures that relationship.

Lois & Pip, Summer 2019

Owl Wall

Tawny Owl – Library Picture

A full on fortnight travelling the roads of Northumberland & Dumfries touring Haunted: Ghost Story Readings for Halloween. A bonus of returning home late at night has been two separate encounters with a tawny owl. Kim and I were enthralled to suddenly light up one in the middle of the lane, between home and village and along a sheltered stretch where we have previously spotted hares. Motionless, caught in the stationary car’s headlights it stared at us for a while, walked around a bit before slowly taking uplift into the safety of the hedge line trees. Something tells us this is a young bird, born this Spring, seeking to establish its own territory. Back home we hear them sometimes at this time of year, uttering those famous mating cries and hope they are answered and fulfilled.

Nights reading stories at our nine mainly rural venues proves the easy part of the operation. Being the producer too involves days sat at my desk posting social media, doing administration & generally catching up on everything else that needs doing before leaving the house. The need to get some physical exercise each day or doing tasks that are not work related is even more urgent than usual. Mending a small section of our field boundary wall where stock had dislodged it offered the perfect fix on both accounts. Not that I’m an kind of expert but the very act of reforming this jigsaw in stone was very satisfying. How long it will last is another matter. I suddenly remembered, with wry amusement, that I had been here before a decade or so ago. Not for real, just virtually, voicing a professional waller putting in a new length at Grey Gables for Nigel Pargetter in The Archers on Radio 4. I remembered also my character’s disgust at being asked to put through holes in his handiwork to allow safe passage for badgers.

Another satisfying job in the outdoor exercise department has been the raking of leaves. Narrow yellow willow, palmate spotty maple, fingery golden oak and fawn fingers of ash with a sprinkling of pine needles will all make for good leaf mould to add to the soil, improving structure. In preparing the crude chicken wire round pen to receive this autumn’s rakings I discover a small toad, not best pleased to be disturbed from its dark damp hideaway. I wonder as I covered him with a great duvet of fallen leaves whether this is the same toad I found earlier this year in the bags of compost I’d brought over from the compost bin in my yard garden at Lancaster. I hope there’s more than one about and that this hideaway prove a worthy home for such delightful garden friendly amphibians.